This week when we are reflecting back 10 years to a time of “Shock and Awe,” lots of writers and thinkers and smartheads are putting out retrospectives and asking, “What have we learned from Iraq?”
I found something I wrote back in those days that kind of talked about what we were learning from Iraq at the time. The following is from Dec. 2, 2005 (with a few clarifying edits) titled “Good news.” At that point we were about two and-a-half years into the war.
Tuesday night, I learned from CNN that President Bush plans to give a “major” speech on Wednesday that explains the “plan” he has for getting the U.S. out of Iraq. The plan evidently is contained in a “35 page” document that has been classified for ages but proves that the administration actually does, and did, have a plan to get the U.S. out of Iraq.
Why it’s taken so long to be unveiled and de-classified was not discussed in the news piece — nor was the reason why it’s being unveiled and de-classified now. A cynic could offer a dozen cynical reasons at this point, but I’ll only suggest the obvious and maybe a couple of other reasons.
First, the president and his aides are not dummies. They can read the numbers as well or better than most. Recent polls (remember, this was December 2005) show 60 percent of Americans are now acknowledging that the Iraq war “wasn’t worth it.” Another majority percentage of people appear not to believe the president when he tells us it was worth it, for all the reasons he tells us it was worth it.
“Worth” and “it” being the mostly operative concepts here. Maybe it was worth something but not this, is my take on the issue. If we could have done it as easily and quickly as we were led to believe it could be done, maybe it would have been worth it … But the pure truth is, we were led to believe it was going to be a cake walk, and that the reasons were so above reproach (think WMD), that we almost couldn’t “not” do it.
Richard Nixon was another president who was less than completely forthright with the American people about his plan to end the war in Vietnam. His “plan that never was” called for staged withdrawals, as I recall, and was dependent on the South Vietnamese becoming stronger until they were able to provide for their own security. As they “stood up, we would stand down,” was more or less the buzz term then as it is now.
As “they stand up, we will stand down” frankly, is not a plan to my way of thinking. It is a hope, and hope is not a plan. Hope is what one wishes will happen but has little or no control on an actual outcome. American commanders and advisers “hope” their Iraqi students will stand up at some point sooner rather than later, but they can’t assure it and they can’t control external forces that might overwhelm their charges. And unfortunately, that doesn’t affect the plan at all, because there was no timetable for the Iraqis to be able to “stand up.”
And admittedly, it’s a rather subjective determination. If 46 percent of a particular Iraqi brigade doesn’t run away from a fight, is that considered “standing up?” If fewer than half of the forces stand and fight, can anyone legitimately suggest that they are ready to be self-sufficient?
I’m counting on finding these things out in the president’s speech Wednesday, just in time to revise this if necessary.
Unfortunately, it appears unnecessary to revise this. What I heard Wednesday morning was pretty much the same tired, jingoistic rhetoric about staying with the mission until it’s accomplished or staying with the task until the goals are reached, (fortunately not “staying the course”). The word “victory” seemed to have replaced some other terms we’ve heard before which translated, in my mind, to “staying the course, whatever and however long it takes.”
Whatever was in the 35 page plan didn’t come very clear to me. “We’re going to train up the Iraqi army and security forces, and when they’re ready and able to defend themselves and see to the country’s security, then we’ll bring our brave troops home.” (Not a minute sooner nor a minute later.)
The president’s plan in December 2005, in my mind is a lot like Richard Nixon’s plan 35 years ago.
President Bush of course can’t get elected or re-elected on the basis of his plan, but he could be destined for a legacy of derision and contempt because his plan sounds a lot like Nixon’s plan, which turned out to be an expensive non-plan that cost many thousands of more lives and wasted treasure.
So, “What have we learned from Iraq?” I’d say we’ve learned about the same things we learned from Vietnam and have yet to learn from Afghanistan. People without a shred of Western-style Democratic traditions simply do not fit into our “plans” and they especially don’t fit into our American-style timetables for getting things done. We get pushed into wars believing we’ll create “mini-Americas” full of grateful citizens who will adopt free and transparent governments — just like ours.
And maybe they will, if not in this century, then in centuries to come. That’s the lesson I hope we’ve learned from Iraq. It never is and never will be as simple as we want and absolutely never as quickly as we want. And the concept of “worth it” really needs to be at the forefront of all our intellectual, moral, political, socio-economic, military and foreign policy discussions for the next 100 years.
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.